Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future

I recently read Michael Barone’s book entitled Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future. It is well worth reading. Here is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book:

For many years I have thought it one of the peculiar features of our country that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkbly competent thirty-year-olds. Americans at eighteen have for many years scored lower on standardized tests than eighteen-year-olds in other advanced countries…Half a century ago Americans leaving high school were expected to be ready to go out into the world and make their way. Today they aren’t expected to be ready for that, and most of them aren’t.
But by the time Americans are thirty, they are the most competent people in the world. They are part of the strongest and most vibrant private-sector economy. They produce scientific and technological advances of unmatched scope. They provide the world’s best medical care. They man the strongest and most agile military the world has ever seen. And it’s not just a few meritocrats on top: American talent runs wide and deep…
How do I explain this phenomenon? Because from ages six to eighteen Americans live mostly in what I call Soft America – the parts of our country where there is little competition and accountability. But from ages eighteen to thirty Americans live mostly in Hard America – the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability. Soft America coddles: our schools, seeking to instill self-esteem, ban tag and dodgeball, and promote just about anyone who shows up. Hard America plays for keeps: the private sector fires people when profits fall, and the military trains under live fire.
This book is about Hard America and Soft America. It is about schools and work, about the public sector and the private sector, about the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas, about the military and the universities…it is not primarily about politics: it is about how Americans live and learn and work, not about how they vote.
The book is also about how we have gotten to where we are today, and about where our society is headed – or should be headed. For no part of our society is all Hard or all Soft…Soft America expanded during much of the twentieth century, as people sought to Soften an America that seemed overly harsh and unforgiving. Government regulation eased working conditions, and welfare state measures like Social Security provided a safety net for individuals. The Hard discipline of schools was eased by progressive educators. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, it seemed like Soft America might eradicate Hard America entirely. Proposals were advanced for government-guaranteed incomes, increased welfare payments, and more regulation of private-sector business; criminals were punished more leniently; even the military abandoned traditional tactics, procedures, and goals and suffered as a result. But in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Hard America fought back. Economic entrepreneurs and political innovators Hardened many parts of American life by their example and with their ideas. This Hard counteroffensive continues today, as we battle over how Hard and Soft the different parts of our society should be in the future.
Public schools, for example, may be the most notable example of a predominantly Soft institution – which helps explain why American children are confined mostly to Soft America. But…our schools have not always been so Soft…and there are signs they are getting Harder again. The private-sector economy, with its market competition, may be predominantly Hard, but it has always contained large niches of Softness…Many public-sector bureaucracies are Soft…and bureaucrats’ political masters are subject to the Hard discipline of elections.
So the boundary between Hard America and Soft America is not fixed. It is fluid, often moving back and forth. Most of us recognize that some amount of Hardness helps to maximize productivity and achievement. Yet most of us in our personal and professional lives seek zones of Softness in which we can go our own way…
I do not take the view that Softness is bad…It would be a cruel country that had no Soft niches. But it would be a weak and unproductive country that did not have enough Hardness. There will naturally be differences about how much of American life should be Hard and how much Soft – something reasonable Americans will argue about forever.
But as we consider those arguments I think we have to keep this in mind: Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it Hard.

It is this last point that provides a frame of reference for the debates about topics such as (i) the miserable quality of our public education system; (ii) how we instill self-esteem in our children devoid of any connection to whether it is warranted by their performance; (iii) refusals by management and labor to confront bad decisions such as uncompetitive cost structures in certain industries; and, (iv) excessive health and pension benefits, especially those found in the public sector.
Or, to put it another way, our ongoing war against Islamic terrorists who want to destroy our society combined with an increasingly competitive global economy clearly suggest the importance of maintaining a vibrant Hard America core so we do not see the reduction or destruction of our country’s political and economic freedoms and a reduction in our standard of living.
I would encourage you to read the book.

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